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Anzac Day Memories

Monday, 25 April 2016  | Darren Mitchell

On Sunday 23 April 1916, a large gathering filled Loyalty Square Balmain in inner Sydney to witness the unveiling and dedication of a new war memorial, a monument to those who had left their working-wharf suburb for the Great War.

The memorial is commonplace – it has many of the elements we have come to expect of the ubiquitous First World War memorials across Australia. Included are declarative textual nods to nation and empire, lists of names on stone tablets, and embellishments of ornamental wreaths and royal symbols. Illustrative of its era, the memorial is topped by a streetlight and ringed by drinking troughs at horsehead level, speaking of its civic role at a time when these utilities were still to make their way to domestic dwellings.

However, the Balmain Memorial is also unique – it is the first civic monument of the Great War in Australia to record the names of the fallen, erected merely one year after the fateful landing at Gallipoli. An earlier Gallipoli structure in Adelaide is Australia’s ur-memorial to the Anzacs – a squat memorial stone with Christian cross atop dedicated to the ‘Australasians’ at the Dardanelles, unveiled on 7 September 1915 (Wattle Day) even whilst Anzac troops were still in combat on the Gallipoli Peninsula.

At this early point in the campaign, Wattle Day, which had been inaugurated only in 1913, and whose proponents were imagining a new ‘national’ day for a new nation, was a reasonable choice to pay tribute to those who had forsaken a peaceful life in the antipodes for a European war. October’s Eight-Hour Day and even Christmas Day in 1915 were also christened ‘Anzac Day’ and utilised for various events and fund-raising for the troops.

However, in the end, the act of memorialising the Gallipoli landing prevailed over the native flower in the contest for an appropriate expression of a young nation’s fledgling identity. Balmain’s early act of recognition instigated two foundational components of Australia’s Anzac traditions. The interwar years saw some 10,000 such memorials in every town and suburb across Australia, each inscribed with the names of all those who headed overseas to serve. And a simple cross etched alongside a name marks those who did not return.

The attempts at comprehensive listings were a freshly-adopted departure from long-held precedent which had extolled individual heroic leaders. Exceptions had appeared in history, springing briefly from the wells of democracy unearthed in ancient Athens and in the late eighteenth century French revolutions. The Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 had quietly seeded the practice in some parts of Australia.

The equal recognition of all who answered the call to the Great War, which to modern sensibility does not seem so revolutionary, was a deliberate, even necessary, innovation. Bodies of Australians who fell on the battlefield or succumbed to wounds were not repatriated. The extensive network of cemeteries across Europe and the Middle East engineered by the Imperial War Graves Commission (later, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) were a distant, inaccessible substitute. The expense and time involved to achieve overseas passage from Australia prevented most families from attending the grave of their loved ones. Consequently, the local war memorial provided an essential focus for familial grief and community pride.

They were not only built to honour the dead and all others who served, but have also provided the venue for active commemoration down the decades. The tradition of war memorials that emerged during the First World War, and the ceremonies they hosted, have ensured that Australians would fulfil their promise to never forget.

Australia’s Anzac traditions have been sustained because the nation’s memorials remain living memorials, fostering official and vernacular expression of national values, as well as continuing to speak of the sacrifices of the past and to express hope for the future.

Ceremonies of annual tribute across Australia began in 1916. Each state differed initially in its approach, particularly on the question of whether to set aside a whole day or half day, and whether the events themselves were to be solemn or festive affairs. The nationally unified approach with which we are familiar today did not develop until the late 1920s.

It was also at this time that the principal state memorials – expensive, large, civic monuments – were finally appearing, a process that was to continue for a further decade or more through the unveiling of the Australian National Memorial on the Western Front in 1938 (each Commonwealth nation that fought there was granted a location and approval to build a national monument), and finally the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1941.

The local memorials that were largely completed by this time were typically obelisks, providing an uncomplicated tabula rasa to inscribe local meaning. Occasionally, borrowing from earlier traditions, a digger sculpture would sit atop, sometimes standing proud, mostly at ease, more commonly not so much heroic as appearing to be in grateful repose. Many elements borrowed their symbolism from the panoply of ancient civilisations, whether Greek, Ancient Near Eastern or, of course, Christian.

The connection to ancient times is particularly obvious in the ANZAC Memorial Building in Sydney unveiled in 1934. It is a classic Mesopotamian ziggurat, with stepped roof tower and grand stairways leading to an internal shrine. And despite the obvious theological metaphor embodied in the central sculpture ‘Sacrifice’, it is mostly explained in Spartan terms – ‘Come back with your shield, or on it’. But the dead warrior is depicted lying prone in Christlike formation across both sword and shield. He is borne aloft by a grieving mother, sister and wife with infant, a startlingly vivid metaphor (notably sixteen years after war’s end) for the tragedy of the war on both the battlefield and the home front.

The absence of a living connection to the Great War has impacted our memory of that time. But it has also created distance from the symbolism used and from its importance in establishing and sustaining meaning.

This loss of meaning also occurs at the ceremonial level. I will have attended the Dawn Service at the Cenotaph in Sydney shortly after penning this article. At the ceremony we will be led in prayer by an army chaplain, and sing ‘Abide with Me’ (some call it the Anzac hymn) and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Recessional’. A minute’s silence will be observed to provide for private prayerful reflection. A bugler will sound the trumpet to signal the resurrection of the dead. Wreaths of flowers will be laid in tribute as a sign of the new life to come. Of course all of these common commemorative elements have other possible meanings, but historians acknowledge that the ceremony format was devised by Anglican priests at a time when mourning practices drew substantially on Christian liturgical forms. It will not be uncommon for those attending similar dawn or later services around Australia, and in more than 60 nations around the world, to be reminded of the connection of those who lost their lives in the Great War to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

It is surprising in many ways that, in the resurgence of Anzac interest in the early 1980s, the format of the Anzac ceremony, devised in the 1920s largely by Christians, was taken up without question and continues to this day. We are more multicultural, and more secularised in the sense that religion, and specifically Christianity, is often precluded from the public square. We may be an incurious lot, but the words expressed in song and prayer, as well as the symbolism behind the commemorative acts of silence, bugle soundings and tribute laying, are probably quaintly mysterious to most in attendance, including many an organiser.

Robert Musil’s truism that there is nothing so invisible as a monument is probably true of our war memorials on most days of the year. However, our Anzac Day practice of gathering in solemn remembrance of past wartime sacrifices is what keeps them visible for generations to come.

Darren Mitchell is enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Sydney’s Department of History researching the origins of Anzac commemoration. He is a former Director of the ANZAC Memorial Building in Sydney. He attends St Barnabas Anglican Church, Broadway.


K Henderson
August 8, 2017, 2:47AM
A very interesting article, which some additional information may assist.

Wattle Day had been inaugurated in several states in the years prior to 1913, however in 1913 the autonomous organisations in Australian states held a national conference in Melbourne and federated, electing South Australian William J. Sowden as the national Australian Wattle Day League's inaugural federal president for its initial 2-year term.

As the Australian Wattle Day League was constituted so as to be headquartered in the home state of its federal president, the AWDL's headquarters were therefore located in South Australia at the commencement of WWI, and hence it was in Adelaide, South Australia, that the League's Federal President presided over the League's establishment of
1) Australia's first World War I memorial, the League's War Memorial Oak (which still stands in Creswell Garden, Adelaide Park Lands) planted by the Governor of South Australia, the League's State Patron, on Wattle Day 29 Aug 1914, and
2) Australasia's first national Gallipoli memorial, the 1915 Wattle Day League's Gallipoli Memorial Wattle Grove.

Australasia's first national memorial to the Gallipoli landing, and those who fell, was the Australian Wattle Day League's Gallipoli Memorial Wattle Grove with its 'Australasian Soldiers Dardanelles April 25th 1915' obelisk, designed by AWDL Life Member Walter Charles Torode, and dedicated on 7 September 1915.

In 1915, because of the planned inauguration of the League's Gallipoli memorial, Adelaide's Wattle Day events were deferred (from the last Saturday in August) to coincide with the official visit of the Governor-General and Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, Federal Patron and Patroness of the Australian Wattle Day League following their attendance at the funeral and interment (3 Sep, Canberra) of Major-General Bridges.

Torode's design was for a symbolic evergreen Gallipoli memorial, with 4 quadrants each containing 25 different species of wattles (to provide year round flowering), signifying the day and month of the Landing, radiating from the central obelisk and its surrounding rustic pergola. Five native pines, representing the Allies, that were planted around the Gallipoli memorial's original pergola, still stand guard on the original 1915 Gallipoli Memorial Wattle Grove site to this day.

Torode also intended the name of each soldier memorialised by a grove planting to be permanently recorded, and a few years later at the same site the League inaugurated plantings in memory of living war heroes who'd served Australia with honour and been decorated - commencing with plantings in memory of several nurses awarded the Royal Red Cross and for Victoria Cross recipients. The League then embarked on a major expansion of the national Gallipoli memorial, aiming to plant a tree in memory of each and every fallen soldier, extending the memorial from South Terrace to Greenhill Road in a plantation running along the western side of [Sir Lewis] Cohen Avenue, South Park Lands.

Initially, Torode's Gallipoli memorial did not have a stone cross - its cross was celestial, the constellation of the Southern Cross, and for ceremonies the obelisk was to be topped with a bowl filled with flowers.

Later, Torode designed and added a pebble-worn cross atop the obelisk, and this was intended to be subsequently replaced with one formed from beach pebbles to be sourced from the Gallipoli landing after the end of the war. In 1940 the Adelaide City Council split the Gallipoli memorial by removing the League's (Torode's) pergola and obelisk several hundred metres west (within the same park) to Lundie Garden, South Terrace. Five new pines were planted to stand guard behind the League's (Torode's) relocated Dardanelles obelisk.

In 1969 Adelaide City Council installed a modern new Council-designed granite cross, having removed and disposed of (trashed or lost) Torode's pebble-worn cross.

The Council also demolished the pergola.

The 1915 Wattle Day Dardanelles / ANZAC Monument and Gallipoli Memorial Wattle Grove were noted as being of special state heritage significance to members of the South Australian and international community, in a subsequent Council 2013 Princess Elizabeth Playground 'upgrade' masterplan, and the five healthy symbolic replacement pine trees were demolished (chain-sawed and wood-chipped) and replaced with three concrete-edged garden beds (each with an unspecified, indeterminate number of low wattle plants) laid out in a broken three-quarter-circuit around the obelisk with grass quasi-pathway openings skewed in comparison to Torode's original design - oriented to the SW and SE rather than Torode's cardinals of West, South and East.

The first commemorative service for the Gallipoli Landing (later known as ANZAC Day) was held on 7 September 1915 by the Australian Wattle Day League, the Governor-General and Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, etc, at Gallipoli Memorial Wattle Grove, South Park Lands, Adelaide, and on the first anniversary of the Gallipoli Landing, commemorations were held at the Wattle Day League's Gallipoli Grove.

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